In 2010, when KFC introduced its Original Recipe® Double Down, a bacon-and-cheese “sandwich” on a fried-chicken “bun,” late-night hosts mocked it as the latest specimen of fast-food excess. One couldn’t help smelling a rat in the fryolator: The Double Down was, any fool could see, a self-conscious parody of fast-food excess. The marketing wunderkinder who’d invented it and the late-night joke writers feigning horror at it were, where sensibility is concerned, the same people. The real joke was on those who felt genuine horror at this Skid Row Cordon Bleu — the ones who didn’t get that it was a joke.
A great deal of pop culture is, like the Double Down, intentional self-parody. It’s a gesture of contempt at its consumers (think reality TV), and it escapes serious scrutiny by forcing its critics to state the mind-numbingly obvious. Hence, most of us would rather eat broken crack pipes than read an “uproariously scabrous” satire of our “celebrity-addled society,” dwelling in it being more than instructive enough. But Bruce Wagner’s Dead Stars, his seventh novel, doesn’t just plumb the celebrity septic tank backing up into our lives. His knack, shared with Dickens, is for taking grotesques and imparting souls to them.
Lord, but it’s an uphill slog. Readers are warned that their post-Stars shower may call for Brillo pads and delousing powder. Wagner’s Memorial (2006), a masterpiece blending the sublime, scatological, and jaws-wired-shut violent, seems almost decorous alongside Stars. Wagner, an occasional screenwriter who once drove a limousine at the Beverly Hills Hotel, inhabits the consciousness of Hollywood and its discontents with a foul-mouthed, maniacally punning pidgin, as distinctive as Burgess’s Clockwork Orange argot or the prose stylings of Money-era Amis. A chapter focused on the drug-addicted paparazzo Jerzy (as in Memorial, Wagner does the vantage-switching ensemble-cast thing), who’s interviewing at a celebrity-upskirt fetish website, is characteristic, and as vile as anything in the language:
THE HONEYSHOT! posted celebrity skin of all ilk, with that very special emphasis on the classic Bermuda Δ crotchshot, a cash crop that yielded panty shots & occasional much-coveted, crème de la crème panty-less twat-shocker. If you were 18 showing cameltoe by the pool in Maui (Xmas in Hawaii was a very busy time for papsmearazzi: tis the Four Seasons to be jolly!), scuba-diving in Sorrento, aimless in Amalfi or aqua-marooned in the Maldives, one of Harry’s minions would be on you like ants on feta…
It gets worse — with Wagner, it always gets worse. Yet, however much this language threatens to brutalize us, it serves an indispensable purpose. It’s impossible to read it without sensing the desperation behind ambition, the cold-sweat fear that if one stops moving, even in one’s private thoughts, death will catch up.
The struggle with death is at the forefront of Dead Stars. Telma Ballendyne is the world’s youngest breast cancer survivor, or kansurvivor, or hervivor, having endured a double mastectomy at age nine. By age thirteen, the sublime significance of illness seems lost on her. She’s a charity circuit celebrity, jealous of her title and fame and determined to parlay it into a permanent spot on Fox’s Glee. To this end she enlists the aid of fellow survivor Michael Douglas — Wagner regularly spurns roman à clef conventions and simply shanghais the famous directly into his fiction — the subject of the novel’s most sympathetic, sensitive portrait. Douglas is a loving husband and spiritually generous, disease-humbled soul whose secret dream is to remake Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz: “The movie Michael had watched probably 30 times in as many years was still talismanic, still incantatory, still possessed of the thaumaturgical effect of sponging up his anguished depression.”
Savor that flash of tenderness: It’s rare in Wagner’s 600-page, Inferno-inflected, fallen-star tour of the Hollywood Hells. His other agonists are papsmearazzo Jerzy’s estranged mother, Jacquie Crelle-Vomes, a formerly successful avant-garde photographer turned Sears Portrait Studio tech; Jacquie’s pregnant, nauseatingly fame-crazed daughter Jerrilynn, who goes by “Reeyonna”; Jerrilynn’s baby daddy, Rikki, porn-guzzling foster son of a straitlaced engineer and his emotionally fragile wife; and Tom-Tom, Jerzy’s roommate, a disgraced (to whatever extent that’s possible) American Idol contestant, who preys sexually, emotionally, and financially on everyone in her orbit. Then there are Telma’s mother-cum-“momager” Gwen and the aging, struggling screenwriter Bud Wiggins (reprising his role from Wagner’s debut, Force Majeure), both of whom are more sinned against than sinning, at least as far as Wagner’s characters go.
It would be a stretch to say these people act out a plot. What they do is want things and signally fail to get them. Nearly every thread in Stars ends in a thwarting, either tragic or redemptive. Jerrilynn, who wants to move out of her mother’s house, convinces herself that a trust exists in her name, seeded with funds from the borderline pornographic photos her mother took of her as a child. The revelation that Jacqui is, in fact, dead broke yields an apocalyptic temper tantrum, not to mention a devastating comment on the selectivity of moral outrage. Telma is preempted at a cancer benefit by a younger, more innocent hervivor. Tom-Tom hopes to manage Rikki to stardom, fails right out of the gate, and dreams up a way to exploit him instead.
What Jerzy wants can’t be put into words, though not for lack of trying. Wagner serves up page after page of Jerzy’s tweaked-out delusions, a virtuoso performance that is nevertheless hard to sit through. Most painful is the brief encounter between Jacqui and her son, whose mask of lucidity peels away just as they’re about to part. In its squalid way, the scene is as heartbreaking as the Pietà.
One may well ask: Why read it? That’s a perfectly sane question. It contains ugliness and horror on a scale that leaves even the most jaded reader gaping. Taken one way, the book is a sustained assault on human dignity. But that’s precisely the wrong way to takeit, just as it would be missing the point to call Dead Stars Hollywood satire or even, come to that, satire. Wagner’s characters are, as his title suggests, burnouts, human cinders. They seek happiness in all the wrong places, dreaming of gilded cages and luxury Malebolge. Yet Wagner’s take on these lost souls is, ultimately, anything but punitive. His project is an old one, a simple one: to draw our gaze to the most repulsive, the lowest of the low, and to say — even these, hard as it may be to stomach, are your brothers and sisters.